General at Sea Robert Blake
(27 September 1598 – 17 August 1657
) was an important naval commander of the Commonwealth of England
and one of the most famous English admirals of the 17th century. His successes have been considered to have "never been excelled, not even by Nelson
" according to one biographer.
Blake is recognised as the chief founder of England's naval supremacy
a dominance subsequently inherited by the British Royal Navy
into the early 20th century. Despite this, due to deliberate attempts to expunge the Parliamentarians from history following the Restoration
, Blake's achievements tend to remain unrecognized.
Family and early life
The Blake family had a seat for several generations at (and were Lords of the Manor of) Tuxwell, in the parish of Bishops Lydeard
, near Bridgwater
. The earliest member of the family located in records was Humphrey Blake, who lived in the reign of Henry VIII
. Admiral Blake's grandfather, also named Robert, was the first of the family to strike out on his own from country life as a merchant, hoping to become rich from Spanish trade. He served as chief magistrate and member of Parliament for Bridgwater several times, in recognition of the esteem in which the townspeople held him.
His son, Humphrey, succeeded him in business, and in addition to his father's estates at Puriton (of which he held the lordship), Catcot, Bawdrip, and Woolavington, came into the estate at Plainsfield held by the family of his wife, Sara Williams, since the reign of Henry VII
Robert Blake was the first son of thirteen children born to Humphrey and Sara.
He attended Bridgwater Grammar School for Boys, then went up to Wadham College
. He had hoped to follow an academic career, but failed to secure a fellowship to Merton College
, probably in consideration of his political and religious views, but also because the warden of Merton, Sir Henry Savile
, had 'an eccentric distaste for men of low stature'. Blake, at five feet, six inches tall, thus failed to meet Savile's 'standard of manly beauty'.
After his departure from university in 1625, it is believed that Blake was engaged in trade, and a Dutch writer subsequently claimed that he had lived for 'five of six years' in Schiedam
Having returned to Bridgwater, probably because of the death of his mother in 1638, he decided to stand for election to Parliament
Arms of Robert Blake: argent, a chevron between three garbs sable.
Blake was appointed general at sea
Although it is commonly used, Blake's name was never prefixed by 'admiral', a rank which was not used in the Parliamentarian navy; his actual rank of general at sea combined the role of an admiral
and commissioner of the Navy
In 1651 he led a force to successfully remove the Royalist Sir John Grenville
from the Scilly Isles, where he had been appointed Governor
by Charles II after a local rebellion.
Blake is often referred to as the 'Father of the Royal Navy'. As well as being largely responsible for building the largest navy the country had then ever known, from a few tens of ships to well over a hundred, he was first to keep a fleet at sea over the winter. Blake also produced the navy's first ever set of rules and regulations, The Laws of War and Ordinances of the Sea
, the first version of which, containing 20 provisions, was passed by the House of Commons on 5 March 1649,
with a printed version published in 1652 as The Laws of War and Ordinances of the Sea (Ordained and Established by the Parliament of the Commonwealth of England)
, listing 39 offences and their punishments – mostly death.
The Instructions of the Admirals and generals of the Fleet for Councils of War
, issued in 1653 by Blake, George Monck, John Disbrowe
and William Penn
, also instituted the first naval courts-martial
in the English navy.
Blake developed new techniques to conduct blockades and landings; his Sailing instructions
and Fighting Instructions
, which were major overhauls of naval tactics
written while recovering from injury in 1653, were the foundation of English naval tactics in the Age of Sail
. Blake's Fighting Instructions
, issued by the generals at sea on 29 March 1653, are the first known instructions to be written in any language to adopt the use of the single line ahead
Blake was also the first to repeatedly successfully attack despite fire from shore forts.
English Civil War
On 11 January 1649 Prince Rupert of the Rhine
led eight undermanned ships to Kinsale in Ireland
in an attempt to prevent the Parliamentarians
taking Ireland from the Royalists
. Blake blockaded Rupert's fleet in Kinsale from 22 May, allowing Oliver Cromwell
to land at Dublin on 15 August. Blake was driven off by a storm in October and Rupert escaped via Spain to Lisbon, where he had expanded his fleet to 13 ships. Blake put to sea with 12 ships in February 1650 and dropped anchor off Lisbon in an attempt to persuade the Portuguese king to expel Rupert. After two months the king decided to back Rupert. Blake was joined by another four warships commanded by Edward Popham
, who brought authority to go to war with Portugal
Rupert twice failed to break the blockade, which was finally raised after Blake sailed for Cádiz
with seven ships he had captured after a three-hour engagement with 23 ships of the Portuguese fleet (during which the Portuguese vice-admiral was also sunk.) Blake re-engaged with Rupert, now with six ships, on 3 November near Málaga, capturing one ship. Two days later Rupert's other ships in the area were driven ashore attempting to escape from Cartagena, securing Parliamentarian supremacy at sea, and the recognition of the Parliamentary government by many European states. Parliament voted Blake 1,000 pounds
by way of thanks in February 1651. In June of the same year Blake captured the Isles of Scilly
, the last outpost of the Royalist navy, for which he again received Parliament's thanks. Soon afterwards he was made a member of the Council of State
Thanks to its command of the sea, the fleet was able to supply Cromwell's army with provisions as it successfully marched on Scotland. By the end of 1652 the various English colonies in the Americas
had also been secured.
First Anglo-Dutch War
Blake's next adventures were during the First Anglo-Dutch War
. The war started prematurely with a skirmish between the Dutch
fleet of Maarten Tromp
and Blake off Folkestone on 29 May 1652, the Battle of Dover
. The proper war started in June with an English campaign against the Dutch East Indies, Baltic and fishing trades by Blake, in command of around 60 ships. On 5 October 1652 Dutch Vice-Admiral Witte Corneliszoon de With
, underestimating the strength of the English, attempted to attack Blake, but due to the weather it was Blake who attacked on 8 October 1652 in the Battle of the Kentish Knock
, sending de With back to the Netherlands in defeat. The English government seemed to think that the war was over and sent ships away to the Mediterranean
. Blake had only 42 warships when he was attacked and decisively defeated by 88 Dutch ships under Tromp on 9 December 1652 in the Battle of Dungeness
, losing control of the English Channel to the Dutch. Meanwhile, the ships sent away had also been defeated in the Battle of Leghorn
Following the navy's poor performance at Dungeness, Blake demanded that the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty
enact major reforms. They complied by, among other things, enacting Articles of War
to reinforce the authority of an admiral over his captains.
Blake then sailed with around 75 ships to disrupt Channel shipping, engaging Tromp with a similar sized fleet in the Battle of Portland
from 28 February to 2 March 1653 when Tromp escaped with his convoy under cover of darkness.
Peace with the Dutch achieved, Blake sailed in October 1654 with 24 warships as commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Fleet
successfully deterring the Duke of Guise
from conquering Naples.
Bey of Tunis
In April 1655 Blake was sent to the Mediterranean again to extract compensation from the piratical states that had been attacking English shipping. The Dey of Tunis
refused compensation, and with 15 ships Blake destroyed
the two shore batteries and nine Algerian ships in Porto Farina
, the first time shore batteries had been taken out without landing men ashore.
In February 1656 commercial rivalry with Spain was soon turned to war. In the Anglo-Spanish War
Blake blockaded Cádiz
, during which one of his captains, Richard Stayner
, destroyed most of the Spanish plate fleet at the Battle of Cádiz
. A galleon of treasure was captured, and the overall loss to Spain was estimated at £2,000,000. Blake maintained the blockade throughout the winter, the first time the fleet had stayed at sea over winter.
On 20 April 1657 Blake totally destroyed another armed merchant convoy, the Spanish West Indian fleet, in the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife
– a port so well fortified that it was thought to be impregnable to attack from the sea
– for the loss of just one ship. Although the silver had already been landed, Blake's victory delayed its arrival at the royal treasury of the Spanish government and earned the new English Navy respect throughout Europe.
As a reward Blake was given an expensive diamond ring by Cromwell
. The action also earned him respect 140 years later from Lord Nelson
who lost his arm there in a failed attack
; in a letter written on 17 April 1797, to Admiral Sir John Jervis
, Nelson wrote "I do not reckon myself equal to Blake", before going on to outline the plans for his own attack. Lord Nelson
ranked Robert Blake as one of the greatest naval generals ever known, even when compared with his own reputation.
Memorial marking the reburial of Robert Blake and other Parliamentarians outside St Margaret's, Westminster
In Westminster Abbey
, a stone memorial of Robert Blake, unveiled on 27 February 1945, can be found in the south choir aisle.
St Margaret's Church
, where Blake was reburied, has a stained glass window depicting Blake's life, together with a brass plaque to his memory, unveiled on 18 December 1888.
A modern stone memorial to Blake and the other Parliamentarians reburied in the churchyard has been set into the external wall to the left of the main entrance of the church.
In 1926 the house in Bridgwater where it is believed that Blake was born was purchased and turned into the Blake Museum
where a room is devoted to him and his exploits.
Blake is one of four maritime figures depicted with a statue on the facade of Deptford Town Hall
, in the London Borough of Lewisham.
In 2007 various events took place in Bridgwater, Somerset, from April to September to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the death of Robert Blake. These included a civic ceremony on 8 July 2007 and a 17th-century market on 15 July 2007.
In the Royal Navy a series of ships have carried the name HMS Blake
in honour of the general at sea. The bell of the last HMS Blake
, scrapped in 1982, is on display in Saint Mary's Church
Blake's brother, Benjamin Blake (1614–1689), served under Robert, emigrated to Carolina
in 1682, and was the father of Joseph Blake
, governor of South Carolina
in 1694 and from 1696 to 1700.
Blake's brother Samual Blake
fought under Popham before being killed in a duel in 1645.
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- ^ a b c d Robert Blake – Westminster Abbey, Westminster Abbey
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- ^ Robert Blake, Admiral and General at Sea, based on Family and State Papers, William Hepworth Dixon, Chapman and Hall, 1856, pp. 12–13
- ^ Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution- Revisited, Christopher Hill, Clarendon Press, 1997, p. 50
- ^ a b Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Blake, Robert" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 4 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
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- ^ Full text of "The dispatches and letters of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, with notes" Archive.org
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- ^ Oliver Cromwell Archived 16 October 2009 at the Wayback Machine Westminster Abbey
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- ^ McKenzie, Raymond (1 December 2001). Public sculpture of Glasgow. ISBN 978-0-85323-937-6.
- ^ "London's Town Halls". Historic England. p. 148. Retrieved 5 May 2020.
- ^ Morgan, Kenneth O. "Blake, Robert Norman William, Baron Blake (1916–2003)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/92619.
- ^ "Lord Blake". The Independent. 25 September 2003. Retrieved 7 January 2019.
- Dixon, William Hepworth. Robert Blake: Admiral and General at Sea: Based on Family and State Papers. Mount Kisco, N.Y.: Regatta Press, 2000. ISBN 0967482615 ; This volume was originally published in London by Chapman and Hall in 1852.
- Knight, Frank General-at-Sea The Life of Admiral Robert Blake London Macdonald 1971 ISBN 0-356-03694-4
- John Rowland Powell (1972). Robert Blake: General-At-Sea. Collins. ISBN 0-00-211726-6.
- Bernard Capp (1989). Cromwell's Navy: The Fleet And the English Revolution, 1648-1660. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-820115-X.
Last edited on 14 May 2021, at 15:25
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